asked for a show of hands
as to whether we should go on.
These lines appear in Nick Flynn’s poem “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands” published in Some Ether, winner of the 1999 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry.
Over a decade later, Flynn has given readers, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, published by Graywolf Press. This vessel of a collection is built from the familiar lexicon of Flynn’s earlier work. The shipwright has brought the dynamic language of Some Ether, the Ahab like helming of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and the political force of The Ticking is the Bomb to fashion The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands.
The collection is a forceful voyage through a post 9-11 political atmosphere, and courses its focus on the injustices inflicted at Abu Ghraib, all the while, seeking to reach beyond the drowned apathy of the public. Flynn’s message is simple, but the methods by which he leads the reader, subverts the reader’s expectations, and charts the suffering of others as a collective suffering, is awe-inspiring.
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, begins with “haiku (failed)” a prose poem punctuated and slashed into linear yet fragmented phrases and sentences, a form which is repeated incrementally throughout the collection, tethering Flynn’s political and sparse dramatic monologues titled “fire”, “air”, “earth”, and “water” to literary history, mythology, philosophy, and culture. “haiku (failed)” seeks to connect despite the inability or difficulty of communication. The poem questions and sings toward another in an eternal game of telephone:
damn phone–until one day it sails / out of sight, until one
day it cuts out of / earshot, bye-bye muttered into your cupped palm,
bye-bye / boat, bye-bye rain–Look / maybe this is the place we’ve been /
waiting for, maybe this place / is the day, inside us, inside each /
corpuscle, the day, that day, everyday is / inside, my body, your body,
everyday is / this thread, everyday you said, come / get me
Flynn creates binary layers of meaning within the bounds of the sentence by fragmenting the prose poems with slashes, mimicking line breaks, while still maintaining the fluidity of the prose line. Everyday is inside, my body, your body, everyday is this thread, [quoted without slashes] is fragmentally infused with the idea “inside, my body, your body” collectively tethering each individual to another and thus creating further depth within the syntactical structure of the sentence.
The diminishing boarders of individual bodies serve as a central idea within the collection. If the physical boundary of one individual to another disappears in “haiku (failed)” through the simple traversing of each day, then it also happens in love, or love making, as in “kedge”, “I meant, with you I can’t feel my body ending.” Flynn not only blurs the boarders of the body, but memory, experience, and imprisonment as well. The dramatic monologues of “fire”, “air”, “earth”, and “water”, gesture through their desperation, winding narratives, pleadings, and documentation, toward an understanding that to imprison another leads to an imprisonment of the self, not of the corporeal body, but of the mind and soul. The speaker of these poems addresses the Captain in “fire”:
I remember, capt’n, something, it
didn’t happen, not
to me–this guy, I knew him by
face, I don’t remember his
name, one night
walking home from a party, a car it
clipped him, for hours he
wandered, dazed, his family, his
neighbors, with flashlights they
searched, all night, the woods
But as the speaker says, “it / didn’t happen, not / to me,” the reader is faintly reminded of the old cliché: someone asking for advice, trying to refract their own plight on a friend, I have a friend whose in trouble… Therefore, pages later, the speaker begins to double back, to blur the lines of what happened to whom:
hey capt’n I don’t know if I’m allowed
hey capt’n years ago I’m walking
one drunk night, even now I
wonder–sometimes still I
imagine–was I hit am I
dream this confession
The torture and human rights violations at Abu Ghraib are the cynosure of The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. Many of the poems directly or indirectly comment on the specific torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, warping details into ghost ship descriptions that glide out from the fragmentary monologues of the speaker:
they knotted their blankets their blankets dissolved
& their necks stretched to the floor
& yesterday capt’n thirty stopped eating
I forget the words to this song
we fed them with tubes their vitals are good
it helps to think it’s a game
& we’ll all float on okay okay
& we’ll all float on okay
Flynn’s speaker continually asks the Captain to clarify the rules of interrogation and the means of torture that are allowed. The speaker perverts the question of “what’s right” within the bounds of the prison’s hierarchical culture:
if I understand the memo right, capt’n, we can use
water, but we cannot use earth–that is,
we can simulate drowning, but not
burials–is that right, sir,
capt’n? I’ve read
the memos & I want to do
These poems ripple out from within the space of the prison, toward popular culture and the post 9-11 climate of the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. References to songs, “used, without permission, to torture prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere,” infuse the poems with a deep sense of the collective inclusion in the perversion of art, life and reality, “that / war, say, jesus, / did we really just make it all up?”
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is forcefully political. Much of its success is marked by Flynn’s ability to infuse historical detail with vividly imaginative language, shifting perspectives, and poetic craftsmanship. The first two sections of the collection function as an airtight vessel floating the reader into a tragic and refracted world that is a poetic manipulation of our own.
The third section of the collection is far less successful than its counterparts. The sails slack and the poems drift toward conclusion. The section abandons the organization of the first two that skillfully arrange subject matter and imagery into a cycle of the peripheral traversing into the forefront of the poems. The third section begins with “seven testimonies (redacted)” which are, “redacted versions of the testimonies of seven Abu Ghraib detainees, as transcribed by the artist Daniel Heyman.” The testimonies are quoted in full in the endnotes of the collection, and are far more compelling than Flynn’s redacted sequence. The testimonies function, in whole, as political protest and art in themselves and not much is gained through Flynn’s interpretation. The sequence lacks the shifting perspectives and ambiguous boundaries of experience and body that allow Flynn to navigate the Bermuda Triangle of political poetry.
Yet, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is a beautiful and frightening vessel voyaging into a world shaped by fear, war, love and collective kinship. It is daring in its subject matter and built by an expert craftsman. Read it. You won’t be disappointed.
Andrés Cerpa was raised in Staten Island, New York. He spent many of his childhood summers living with his grandparents in Puerto Rico. He received his B.A. in English Literature from the University of Delaware. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts in poetry at Rutgers University Newark, where he also teaches.